Happy Moo Year as Japan prepares to usher in 2009

Fri Dec 26, 2008 2:37am EST
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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - With Christmas over, Japan on Friday began preparing for its biggest celebration of the holiday season, the start of the New Year, with moos and squeaks as well as paws and hooves.

While most of Asia remains faithful to the Chinese lunar calendar to mark the Chinese New Year, Japan ushers it in according to the Western calendar, making New Year's Day the start of both 2009 and the Chinese New Year.

On December 31, Japan will bid farewell to the current Chinese Year of the Rat and welcome the Year of the Ox, or the Cow, as locals call it. Other Asian nations are due to mark the lunar new year toward the end of January.

In an annual event, animals representing the incoming and outgoing years took part in a handover ceremony at a local animal park while human guests took stock of the past year and expressed hopes for the next.

"I usually change the New Year decorations to match the animal but this is the first time I see it in the flesh," said 65-year-old Yorio Hitomi, a Tokyo resident.

The event at the Sunshine International Aquarium saw a calf filling in for the cow and a hamster -- the park's only rodent resident -- taking the place of the rat.

Using paws and hoofs, the animals signed over responsibility for the outgoing and incoming years.

"At the end of 2008, Japan and the world lost its luster. I hope that with the new year and the new animal representing it, both Japan and the world will regain some of its prosperity," Tsunekiyo Miyajima, assistant manager for the Sunshine City corporation which owns the park, told Reuters.

According to the Chinese calendar, the Ox, or Cow, is an animal that brings prosperity through hard work. The outgoing Rat symbolizes wealth.

(Writing by Olivier Fabre, editing by Miral Fahmy)